Fairies and Fatal Women

This section brings together images of fairies and fantasy women. Although we might imagine that the sexually adult and childlike worlds these figures represent are distinct, they were closely connected in eighteenth century art and literature. Fuseli’s works dominate the room, but there are also paintings by Blake and Fuseli’s younger followers Georgina North (1798–1835) and Theodor von Holst (1810–1844).

Henry Fuseli, Queen Katherine’s Dream exhibited 1781

Henry Fuseli Queen Katherine's Dream

Henry Fuseli
Queen Katherine's Dream exhibited 1781
Oil on canvas, 1800 x 2400 x 120 mm
Lent by Fylde Borough Council

In a scene from Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII (1613), Queen Katherine dreams of eternal happiness while on her deathbed. As the ‘spirits of peace’ depart from her, she raises her arms in joy. Katherine of Aragon (1485–1536) was the wife of Henry VIII from 1501 until their divorce in 1533, causing the break from Rome and allowing Henry to marry Ann Boleyn.

Georgina North, The Shepherd’s Dream after 1816

Georgina North The Shepherd's Dream

Georgina North
The Shepherd's Dream after 1816
Pen and black ink, and brush and black and grey wash, over graphite, on paper
Lent by the Art Institute of Chicago, The Leonora Hall Gurley Memorial Collection 1976

The subject is taken from folklore and literature. A sleeping shepherd is assailed by fairies, while his dog takes watch. Georgina North was the daughter of the Countess of Guilford, one of Fuseli’s most important patrons later in his life. This drawing shows the inspiration she took from Fuseli, and perhaps Blake.

William Blake, Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786

William Blake, ‘Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing’ c.1786
William Blake
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing c.1786

This watercolour probably represents the closing scene of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595–6). The king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, embrace to the left, reunited at last after the separation which had set in motion the comic action of the preceding evening. Puck prances playfully next to them, his upraised arms and pointed ears recalling classical treatments of Bacchus or satyrs.

William Blake, Queen Katherine’s Dream c.1783–90

William Blake Queen Katherine's Dream circa 1783-1790

William Blake
Queen Katherine's Dream circa 1783-1790
Pen, Indian ink, grey wash and watercolour over some graphite on paper, 203 x 161 mm
Lent by the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In a scene from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1613), the Queen is visited by spectral apparitions, on the night before her sudden death. Blake is here clearly indebted to Fuseli’s large composition of the same subject, exhibited in 1781, and his Shepherd’s Dream, exhibited in 1786. Both these paintings are on show in this room.

James Gillray, The Lover’s Dream 24 January 1795

This is a comment on the cynical marriage of the notoriously dissolute Prince of Wales (1762–1830) to Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821). The Prince dreams about the loveliness of his new wife, and the treasures the marriage will bring. His father, George III, offers money, while his mother hopefully holds out a book titled The Art of Getting Pretty Children. The Prince’s many vices are shown retreating to the left.

Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom c.1790

Henry Fuseli, ‘Titania and Bottom’ c.1790
Henry Fuseli
Titania and Bottom c.1790

Titania, the queen of the fairies, has been made by her jealous husband Oberon to fall in love with Bottom, whose head has been magically transformed into that of an ass. Bottom orders her fairies to serve his whims. Peaseblossom scratches his head, Mustardseed rubs his nose, Cobweb, standing on Bottom’s outstretched hand, is ordered to kill a bumblebee. The painting was commissioned by John Boydell for his Shakespeare Gallery.

QUEEN. Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.

BOTTOM. Where’s Pease-blossom?


BOTTOM. Scratch my head, Pease-blossom. –
Where’s monsieur Cobweb?

COBWEB. Ready.

BOTTOM. Monsieur Cobweb; good monsieur,
get your weapons in your hand, and kill me a
red-hip’d bumble bee on the top of a thistle;
and, good monsieur, bring me the honey-bag.

William Shakespeare,
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6), Act IV, Scene 1

Henry Fuseli, Titania Awakening (Titanias Erwachen) 1785–90

Titania, the queen of the fairies, wakes and tells Oberon of her dream in which she was in love with an ass. Oberon explains that she has been enchanted. A group of good fairies appear on the left. To the right, Bottom sleeps surrounded by evil spirits, including a wicked imp riding a ‘nightmare’. This was the second painting of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595–6) commissioned from Fuseli by John Boydell.

QUEEN. My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought, I was enamour’d of an ass.

OBERON. There lies your love.

QUEEN. How came these things to pass?
O, how mine eyes do loath his visage now!

OBERON. Silence, a while. – Robin, take off this
head. – Titania, music call; and strike more dead
Than common sleep, of all these five the sense.

William Shakespeare,

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6), Act IV, Scene 1

Henry Fuseli, Fairy Mab c.1815–20

Henry Fuseli Fairy Mab

Henry Fuseli
Fairy Mab c.1815–20
Oil on canvas, 700 x 900 mm
Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington

Mab is the chief fairy in folklore and literature. Fuseli’s source for this subject was John Milton’s poem L’Allegro (c.1630). The painter claimed that he was attempting to express ‘female Nature’. Fuseli emphasises the themes of sensual indulgence and sexuality, with a fairy slumped into a bowl of junket (sweetened cream) and another little spirit holding a spoon and bowl, symbolising male and female genitals.

With stories told of many a feat,
How Faery Mab the junkets eat,
She was pincht, and pull’d she sed,
And by the Friars Lanthorn led
Tells how the drudging Goblin swet,
To ern his Cream-bowle duly set

John Milton,
L’Allegro (around 1630), ll.102-7

Henry Fuseli, The Shepherd’s Dream, from `Paradise Lost’ 1793

Henry Fuseli, ‘The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’’ 1793
Henry Fuseli
The Shepherd’s Dream, from ‘Paradise Lost’ 1793

A shepherd rests while tending his sheep. Wrapped in his cloak, with his dog taking watch, he is visited by a parade of imps, fairies and elves who circle over him. The subject is drawn from folklore, and had appeared in Shakespeare and in other poetry. The vision of the shepherd was used as a simile by John Milton in his Paradise Lost (1667), to describe the fallen angels shrinking to fairy size to make more room in Hell. Fuseli referred to this text when he first exhibited the painting.

Behold a wonder! they but now who seemed In bigness to surpass Earth’s giant sons Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room Throng numberless, like that Pygmean race Beyond the Indian mount, or fairy elves, Whose midnight revels, by a forest side Or fountain some belated peasant sees, Or dreams he sees, while overhead the moon Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth Wheels her pale course: they on their mirth and dance Intent, with jocund music charm his ear; At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.

John Milton,

Paradise Lost (1667), Book II, ll.777-89

Theodore Von Holst, Bertalda, Assailed by Spirits (Bertalda von Kuhleborns Geistern erschreckt) c.1830

The subject is taken from the short tale Undine (1811) by the German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843). The heroine Bertalda is tormented by a host of fantastical creatures, conjured by the wicked supernatural creature, Kühleborn. These have been sent in an attempt to drive her away from the household of the hero, Huldbrand, and the lovely water-nymph Undine.

Theodore Von Holst, Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions c.1830–5

Theodore Von Holst Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions

Theodore Von Holst
Bertalda Frightened by Apparitions c.1830-–5
Oil on canvas, 795 x 615 mm
Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum

The female character is Bertalda, who has entered the happy household of Huldbrand and the water-nymph Undine. The nymph’s evil uncle, Kühleborn, intent on keeping the marriage between Undine and Huldbrand intact, tortures Bertalda mentally, haunting her with evil spirits. The subject is taken from the fairytale, Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué (1777–1843).

Henry Fuseli, Symplegma on an Altar before a Term of Priapus (Symplegma auf einem Altar vor einer Herme des Priapos) c.1770–8

This is an example of the explicitly sexual drawings executed by Fuseli while in Rome in the 1770s. The status of such drawings remains mysterious. Are they simply aids to masturbation (and therefore, in the baldest sense, pornography)? Were these elegant productions simply for private consumption, or were they viewed in the bawdy company of like-minded men?

Henry Fuseli, Erotic scene c.1770–8

In a classical setting, an aroused naked man struggles with two women. The Greek inscription in the background translates as ‘Grow large, male progenitor’. The conjunction of classical motifs and sexual activity was provocative. The erotic elements in ancient culture were being investigated by artists and antiquarians.

Henry Fuseli, The Debutante 1807

Henry Fuseli, ‘The Debutante’ 1807
Henry Fuseli
The Debutante 1807

An image of perverted domesticity; three older women sit at a tea-table. They leer at a younger woman seated behind a screen, sewing, her neck fastened to the wall by a leather strap. The present title of this drawing is an invention. It has been suggested that the subject might be the scene in Samuel Richardon’s novel Pamela (1740), or it may be a brothel-scene.

Henry Fuseli, Two Courtesans with Fantastic Hairstyles and Hats c.1796

Fuseli drew numerous studies like this, showing women in weird and wonderful head-dresses and hats. They represent an apparently obsessive and highly sexualised vision of femininity. Here, the indication of a window frame is suggestive; are these prostitutes looking down on their prospective clients, or are they figures in a theatre?

Henry Fuseli, Courtesan with an Elaborate Head-dress (Kurtisane mit Federschmuck) c.1800–10

Henry Fuseli Courtesan with an Elaborate Head-dress

Henry Fuseli
Courtesan with an Elaborate Head-dress (Kurtisane mit Federschmuck) c.1800–10
Pen, pencil and watercolour on paper, 283 x 200 mm
Lent by the Kunsthaus, Zürich on loan from the Gottfried Keller Foundation

This is an example of the large group of drawings of women with elaborate hair and hats by Fuseli. Such drawings are usually indentified as showing simply ‘women’ or, more suggestively, ‘courtesans’. They have also been claimed as portraits of Fuseli’s wife, Sophia Rawlins, a younger woman whom he married in 1788.

Henry Fuseli, Inquisition: Study for Illustration to Columbiad by Joel Barlow 1806

The Spanish Inquisition, personified as a powerful and gigantic woman, stands on top of a pyre, spreading her mantle and looking down upon a victim. Fuseli’s design illustrates lines from Book IV of Joel Barlow’s The Columbiad (1809). This was an epic poem about American history, representing its vast themes through allegory. Typically, Fuseli presents complex subject-matter as a sexually-charged physical drama.

Henry Fuseli, The Great Father and Ancient Night c.1810

The subject of this allegorical design is disputed. It has been suggested that it relates the imagery of a passage in a philosophical text by the ancient writer Plato; alternatively, it is said to illustrate a poem by Fuseli’s friend John Armstrong (1709-79). Either way, it presents a potent image of femininity.

Henry Fuseli, Erotic scene with a Man and Three Women c.1809–10

Henry Fuseli Erotic scene with a Man and Three Women

Henry Fuseli
Erotic scene with a Man and Three Women c.1809–10
Pencil on paper, 180 x 245 mm
Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite the titillating content, this drawing is carefully composed and higly finished. The inscription is taken from the Greek playwright Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound: ‘Thus fatal to my foes be love’. Like the erotic designs from Fuseli’s Roman years (shown nearby), this drawing raises unresolved issues. Should we consider these designs as simply pornographic or as something more complex?

Theodore Von Holst, Erotic Scene with a Man and Two Women c.1822–30

Theodore Von Holst Erotic Scene with a Man and Two Women

Theodore Von Holst
Erotic Scene with a Man and Two Women c.1822–30
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 230 x 189 mm
Lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London E109–1952

This sexually explicit design clearly shows the influence of Fuseli’s works in this genre. According to an early report, von Holst was actually commissioned in his youth by the painter Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) to create such compositions for George IV. The relatively high level of finish might imply this drawing was a commission rather than a work created for private pleasure.

Henry Fuseli, Woman Torturing a Child or Small Man c.1800–10

This is one of a group of designs which seem to show a woman torturing a boy or small man. The weird tool she holds defies description. Is it a knife, a brush, or a chisel? Themes of infanticide appeared in a number of eminent classical and biblical stories. Fuseli’s treatment of the theme is distinctive in its juxtaposition of elaborate modern costumes with scenes of utter depravity.

Henry Fuseli, Study of a Woman c.815–20

Fuseli drew a group of designs which appear to represent a woman torturing or killing a diminuitive male figure. Here, the figure of the victim is barely indicated in pencil. Fuseli’s women, empowered phallically with weapons and with their long hair, are symbols of highly sexualised, threateningly powerful femininity.

Theodore Von Holst, Legs of a Standing Female Figure c.1830

By tradition these legs are said to be those of Maria Anne Fitzherbert (1756–1837), one of the lovers of George IV when Prince of Wales (and, as she was a Catholic, illegally his wife from 1785). George commissioned a number of pornographic drawings from von Holst.

Engraved illustrations to J.C. Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy

Engraved illustrations to J.C. Lavater Essays on Physiognomy

Engraved illustrations to J.C. Lavater
Essays on Physiognomy
translated from the French by Henry Hunter, published London, 1789–98
Lent by the Wellcome Library, London

These engravings are based on drawings by Fuseli. In ‘Addition B’, a female hand pinches the folds suggestively. In the other image, a vigorous male hand is contrasted with a limp, ineffectual female. The potential of body parts to become powerfully symbolic was enhanced by physiognomy – the pseudo-science of interpreting personality from physical appearances.